Cities planning transparency laws for police surveillance tech

In cities around the US, campaigns are being mobilised to allow greater accountability when it comes to surveillance policy.

The ACLU along with a coalition of privacy and civil liberty groups has launched a campaign to support the legislative initiatives.
The ACLU along with a coalition of privacy and civil liberty groups has launched a campaign to support the legislative initiatives.

Eleven cities are organising local legislation intended to make the procurement and use of surveillance technologies by local police departments more transparent.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) along with a coalition of civil liberties groups has launched a campaign to support the legislative initiatives. The partner organisations include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Council on American-Islamic Relations, Restore the Fourth, Crypto Harlem, and National Network of Arab American Communities, and other groups.

ACLU's advocacy and policy counsel Chad Marlow told SCMagazine.com that in every city that signed on to the effort “there has been significant community engagement” and at least one city council member who has offered to introduce legislation after engaging with community groups.

New York City, Washington DC, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Richmond are among the first cities planning to introduce legislation.

The ACLU published a report that details the costs and potential risks associated with common surveillance technologies used by many police departments, including StingRay/ IMSI catchers, RFID plate readers, CCTV cameras, biometric surveillance software and databases, X-ray backscatter vans, LED surveillance light bulbs, through-the-wall radar sensors, forensic and hacking software, and other technologies.

Marlow said local police departments' use of surveillance technologies has “exploded” in terms of different kinds of surveillance devices used, breadth of use, and spending. In most cases, the procurement decisions involved “almost no oversight.”

The initiative is “all about checks and balances,” according to Gabe Rottman, deputy director of CDT's freedom, security, and technology project. “The proposed legislation, and the larger initiative, reflects broad agreement that the community as a whole have a say in how surveillance is conducted, when it is, and why,” he wrote in an email to SC.

New York City Council Member Daniel Garodnick told SC that “nobody really knows” the extent of personal data collection by law enforcement surveillance. He said the technologies improve local law enforcement departments' ability to deter crime, but said the public needs confidence that the privacy of the innocent public is not “violated in the process, either advertently or otherwise.”

Michael Price, counsel for The Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the initiative is a sign that public disclosure is necessary.

Matthew Mitchell, a security researcher and trainer at Global Journalist Security and a 2016 Mozilla Ford Open Web Fellow, told SC that surveillance tools often have “unintended negative consequences” that an individual decision-maker may not consider without an open discussion about the technologies.

Mitchell also organises Crypto Harlem, a community organisation working with the ACLU. Certain populations “interact with surveillance technologies every day,” but have no forum to discuss potential adverse affects, he said. Transparency prevents “conspiracy theories from spiralling out of control.”

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